Ted Hughes and the Theatre
by Tim Supple.

©Tim Supple

My first collaboration with Ted Hughes in the theatre was a near-miss. After that we worked together on three projects, but I always felt that we were working towards the one that would really speak our joint mind. Sadly we never got there. The curious, stop-start journey was interrupted by Ted’s suddenly startling death.

We began at the Young Vic theatre – almost. I was beginning as Artistic Director, Ted was around watching a stage adaptation (with music by Pete Townshend) of The Iron Man. I wanted to make a vivid and untamed stage version of Grimms’ fairy tales and thought Ted would be an ideal writer of new versions of the tales. I wrote him a note but heard nothing. This led me to begin another fruitful collaboration with the poet Carol Ann Duffy who wrote fantastic versions. But, surprisingly, it also led to the collaboration with Ted. Strangely, naively I thought, Ted did drop me a scrawled note about a week before rehearsal apologising for his silence and asking me if it was too late for him to write Grimm Tales (as it was called) for us.

As I got to know him I realised that this was not naivety but an essential quality of Ted’s. He was not part of the culture of work and time and deadlines. He would drop in at the Young Vic from time to time, oblivious to the character culture of the meetings in which I worked and to the effect he would have when he just came and sat in rehearsals – how he would change the atmosphere of a room. To my shame I never yielded fully to this irresponsible, haphazard side of his. I would always squirm, uncomfortable at the collision, and somehow would signal to Ted that it was not easy to have him just hanging around like that. It was the same un-tamed quality that led him to assume that it even might be alright to start on a version a week before rehearsals. And it was the same quality that led him to come and see the show unannounced and like it so much he wrote to me making it clear that he wanted to work with me. And it was the same quality that led him to phone out of the blue after he saw my production of Twelfth Night at the Young Vic and to talk for a long time about how much I had given him, how much I had shown him in this and my previous Shakespeare production (Comedy of Errors for the RSC). I was amazed and thankfully, instinctively, felt it was not appropriate to put the phone down and rush to the next meeting. He was telling me his feelings because he knew he was ill and I didn’t. It was the penultimate conversation I had with Ted.

The first proper conversation I had with him was on the phone. After he wrote to me about Grimm Tales I knew that a spark between us had occurred. The RSC had asked me to direct a play, I chose Wedekind’s Spring Awakening and asked Ted to write a new version. He was not an obvious choice. His work in the theatre had never taken him to either modern plays or German classics. Nor was there any identifiable track record in realistic dramatic dialogue. All I knew of Ted’s theatre work was his time with Peter Brooke: Orghast, Seneca’s Oedipus and the folk stories he created on demand for the early experiments at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris. The last version of Spring Awakening in English had been written by Edward Bond. Ted didn’t read German. But I had a strong feeling that his sensibility would animate the poetic core of the play. Academic versions gave off a whiff of awkward late-nineteenth-century formality, and Bond’s version, while excellent in many ways, reflected his own political priorities. It has a Brechtian toughness that gives the play real clarity but does not capture the spirit of the play as I felt it to be.

I concluded that Ted might be able to express the wildness of the sexual interior shared by the children in the play, and to bring to life the mythic shadow that they feel to be looming over them. The children have the education and awareness to refer to their own awakenings in mythic terms but of course they do not see the full possibilities and dangers of their actions – suicide, pregnancy, tragic death in abortion are the unforeseen destinations of their repressed yearnings. And part of the play’s brilliance is to portray this outer darkness with a mystical quality that matches the children’s own sense of the mystery of their feelings. Parents, school, teachers, penal reform are all portrayed with realistic force but also some uncomfortable mythical character.

Ted worked from a literal translation from the German and, making his own choices, he consulted all the other English versions in front of him. I did not need to ask him to change much. His writing of the children was immensely strong – full of a power of phrase that lay in part within and in part outside their awareness. The parents too had a fresh vividness, brought to life by his innate humanity and sympathy. The tendency in the play to stereotype the adults was softened in Ted’s version of the parents. Instead their own confusions and desires were evoked. On the other hand I felt that the teachers were less successful. There was something in the verbose satire that I felt did not interest him so much. These characters are to be observed, they do not really live and so there was not room, in a faithful version as Ted’s was, for the poetry or humanity of spirit that he excels in. Something in the teachers remained too stubbornly urbane and intellectual to really inspire him.

In production Ted’s version of Spring Awakening was infused with an intensely powerful sense of an unknown force. Lurking around the edge of the action, within the words was a sweet, magnetic menace. His phrasing brought a continual resonance to the stage of the tragedy of awakening, of love destroyed. He was clearly, as all poets must, mining his own emotional experience. One of the very few phrases that I remember asking him to change did this too overtly – a character referred to the gas oven. I asked him to change this not because of the personal reference but because it was anachronistic – the play is set in the late Eighteen hundreds. But it revealed the deep connections he was making. It is characteristic of Ted that instead of highlighting the absurdity or injustice of the repression that leads to shame, guilt and tragedy, his version simply suggests that such repression is doomed. Our overwhelming need to be as we have always been – to lust and love – will not be controlled by the fear or restraint of social convention. It will simply turn to tragedy.

Ted’s great contribution to the production extended beyond his version. He would come to rehearsals, whenever he could, and sit and listen (more than watch). He was always ready to help, advise and comment. It was illuminating that many of the adult actors, trained in the conventional preciousness of the British theatre, exacerbated by too many years at the RSC, greeted his presence with fear and incomprehension. They were not really open to the different way in which Ted saw and spoke about the play. He did not use the simplifying, polite, manipulative directions they felt comfortable with. He spoke on an altogether more demanding level. But he was far more interested in the children and they in him. Entirely open of course and not corseted in habit, pride and fear, they loved his observations and he was able to unlock a depth in the way they saw their roles. However much Ted seemed to enjoy the process of Spring Awakening – I could see that he especially liked being in rehearsal, leaning back against some steps I remember, his head cocked toward the ceiling, seeming to sniff the words in the air.

I had to bribe him to do Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Not because he needed persuading of its genius, far from it. We were at dinner after an early show of the Wedekind at The Barbican with his great friends Michael and Clare Morpergo when someone asked what I was doing next. I mentioned Blood Wedding as a piece that had been on my mind for years and whose time, I felt had come. This provoked in Ted an extraordinary crystallisation of why Lorca’s approach to drama was unrivalled. I had never heard him speak about Lorca before but I was gripped by the intensity of his passion for the young Spanish poet. Ted talked about every great writer having a core project – an explosive centre that reverberates throughout their work. Lorca’s, he said, was encapsulated in the essay on duende. The more I got to know Ted, the more I realised that he truly believed in this demonic spirit of performance - this moment that every performance aspires to, consciously or not, in which the actor and audience will experience together a kind of madness. Such an intensity of expression and sensation transcend all thought and discussion of fussy issues like technical quality. Ted once confided in me that he agreed with Peter Brook’s observation that the RSC actually ruined most actors because too long a time with the company developed too much consciousness of the verse and how to speak it. When we did Blood Wedding he only came to rehearsals once. He told me after it had opened that I had chosen the wrong actors and in most cases he was right. Ted was instinctive as well as very bright and his magnificent nose smelt the stiffness in the room, the uptight actorly concerns, the lack of much possibility of duende.

I don’t think I fully grasped duende at the time. Maybe I didn’t fully believe in it. Certainly I think Ted sometimes imagined it when it wasn’t there, so strong was his desire to capture it. I got a step closer to understanding when I worked on his Ovid translations. But it was finally in India – watching a Thayyam in Kerala, with 12 drums beating incessantly and a dancer in the form of an old crone trying to beautify herself and become young again, working himself into a frenzy over hours as he went across to the other side to meet the gods and drawing the crowd into the frenzy with him – that I felt it and was able to bring that feeling back to the stage.

While Ted had this huge admiration for Lorca he was reluctant to do a translation – I’m sure he had other things on his mind. He was not to be drawn even though I pursued it vigorously. In the end he asked me to help read through a volume of plays by children about environmental concern that he was editing and I said I would if he would do Blood Wedding. His deep, loose laugh resonated down the phone and I knew I had him.

Ted worked on the text as he had Wedekind’s. We had a literal translation done especially for him, and once again he sat with all the other published English versions in front of him. His rendition of the play is immensely successful – even more than that of Spring Awakening. He grasps the bare, blunt fierceness of the writing and states it without adornment or explanation. He takes something essentially Spanish and hears in it the language of the soil and the folk ritual and lets that language re-emerge as something entirely English. The text was far better than the production and the actors cannot be blamed for that. Myself and my collaborators – a trusted, brilliant team of designer, composer, lighting designer – were just too complicated, too aesthetic, not direct enough. In casting, in design, in composition and in conception.

Ted said three things during the time we worked on Lorca’s play, from which I learned a great deal about why it didn’t work. When we were preparing its production, he asked how it was going. I said it was fine, but we were struggling over the design. ‘Design?’ he said, ‘what design do you need? A pot for civilisation and a bush for the wild’. Even though I still don’t agree entirely, it’s a vision against which any obfuscating idea must be tested.

Just before the show opened Ted had to do a number of press interviews. He was reluctant – ‘never talk about anything before it is finished’ was his view. He agreed, to help sell the show, but only on the condition that they interview me, too. The editors were devious, they agreed but then cut me out – words and pictures! Ted was devastated, and when the show was not what we hoped, he said, ‘you see, we cursed it, we said too much and trusted them when we shouldn’t’. Again, I can’t say that I share the power of his belief but I trust his instinct that poetry is delicate until it is ready to be shared and that theatre has that same vulnerable nature. His last observation was after the event. He made one comment about the show apart from the one about casting and he made it with the supportive generosity that all great theatre spirits have. ‘You know, I think that Lorca’s theatre was much more simple [or did he say simpler?] than we imagine, and more anarchic. A bit like a street pageant or carnival. It would have been much cruder than we think.’ That was it, and he was right. And he knew this from the words.

Our next collaboration happened through one phone call only. Ted never saw anything of rehearsals or production. And our sole conversation was the one when he told me that he was ill. However he had done his work - he had written the most superb theatre text I could hope for in Tales from Ovid. The narrative tension, the sensual insight, the violent, mythic glee (a favourite word of his), made theatre a natural home for the work. If there was ever a work that bridged Ted’s artistry as a poet and a dramatist it was Tales from Ovid.

The idea to make theatre from the stories began with Simon Reade, then dramaturg at the RSC. He suggested it to both of us and we all agreed that I and Simon would take care of dramatisation and run any decisions past Ted. Rehearsals were due to begin in January 1999. Sometime before, Ted phoned me to say that he was ill and wouldn’t be around much as he had to give it attention. Very soon after, he was dead.

Rehearsals for the Ovid were always charged by the effortless intensity of Ted’s writing. Lucid, blunt, lithe, it was Shakespearean, Ovidian and Hughesian all at once. And there, for me, is the point about Ted – the reason why he was such a fine dramatic poet. He understood Shakespeare, and he understood Ovid and he stood alongside them both. In Shakespeare he saw the simultaneous existence of the real and the mythic plane – and he also recognised the ruthless clarity with which Shakespeare nails his intention and keeps on nailing it until he gets it. Ted, successfully, made this intention his own and applied it brilliantly to Ovid. He saw how much Ovid was in Shakespeare and he brought them both alive within his own unique dramatic shape.

Our last collaboration was the one that we were working towards - The Epic of Gilgamesh. I only had to ask Ted once and he picked up his pen (old typewriter actually). He made one set of brilliant notes - as brief and as penetrating a synopsis as I have read in these days of treatments, outlines and pitches – with such flow I knew that this project, one in which our interests met perfectly, would be unstoppable. Unfortunately that was all he could do before he died.


Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening: A new version by Ted Hughes was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Pit in the Barbican on 2 August 1995. Director: Tim Supple.

Federico Garcia Lorca, Blood Wedding: A new version by Ted Hughes was first performed at the Young Vic Theatre on 20th September, 1996. Director: Tim Supple

Tales from Ovid (7AD) by Ted Hughes (1997), adapted by Tim Supple and Simon Reade, received its world premiere at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 9th April 1999. Director: Tim Supple. Designer and co-director: Melly Still

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